Bruno Tonioli

Let’s Talk About It- Race, Colorism and Antiblackness on DWTS Part 2

I apologize for this being up later than I had initially planned to have it up. I had a lot going on. But I’m back. And I’m here and ready to drag. Anyway, I spoke about season 24 and Simone, specifically, in the last installment of this series. For this post, I will be focusing more on the pros and mostly Keo. There are a few things that I see regarding Britt and Brandon, but they haven’t been around long or featured enough for me to get a read on how they’re seen and treated on this show (which is sort of a problem in and of itself). 


So as we all know, DWTS has been on the air since 2005. From 2005 until 2014, there had never been a Black person as a teaching pro on the show. Even though there are tons of Black ballroom and Latin dancers all over the globe, the show never decided to give one a shot until season 19, nine years into the show’s existence. Season 19 was when we were all introduced to South African dancer, Keoikantse Motsepe. I was excited because Black people were finally getting some representation on this show. Finally after 9 years of never having a professional dancer on that looked like me. But I also knew that his inclusion was going to bring out a lot of ignorance. And it did. There wasn’t as much that happened immediately, since he and Lolo were the first couple out that season (thanks largely to her cringey interactions with the judges and Erin after a terrible dance). But there were still things that week and things that happened over time that I started see.

After Lolo’s first dance the first thing that Carrie Ann did, was screw up Keo’s name. I don’t think any other pro has had their name screwed up when they were being welcomed. And it wasn’t even his full name that she was saying. She was just saying “Keo”. That’s not any harder to pronounce than Maks, Tony, Val, Derek, Mark, etc. They were eliminated the next day, so the issues that could have followed this couple (because not only was he the first Black pro, but they were also the first Black couple on the show) died immediately. Then trio week came up. Val decided to choose Keo to help out with Janel’s salsa. If you’ve been following me for a while, you know how angry I was when this happened. Now that I’m older, more mature and I understand these things better, I can better articulate why I was so mad. So I’ll set up the scene first. It was a tribal theme which was my first red flag. But no big deal, right? We’ve seen that type of number before. And while they are problematic, it’s never been too bad. That was until Janel dubbed herself the ‘Queen of Color’ with this sort of “You see what I did there? You see? Because Keo is Black and I’m Asian. But mostly because Keo is Black. Haha. Bet you didn’t get that,” look on her face. You can’t tell me it was about the colors in the dance because there was only red and blue chalk at the very beginning and the lighting had a subtle purple to it. So that doesn’t work on me. And she would have never said that comment, had Keo not been in the number. So then we get to the dance. The costuming was pretty problematic. There were other issues with the choreography itself, more specifically the stuff at the beginning without Janel. Once the dance ended, the ignorance and stupidity kept on coming with Bruno making comments about having jungle fever. If you didn’t know, jungle fever is essentially a non-Black person, being attracted to a Black person. It relies on the idea that Black people are from the jungle. In this sense, Black people are considered savages, uncivilized and less than human. There’s more to unpack with this dance and his comments, especially if you want to get into the Josephine Baker comment that he threw out there. But again, that would turn this into a dissertation and I’m not doing this for a degree and I’m not getting paid for it.

Let’s move on to season 22. Keo was paired with Jodie Sweetin. This was the first season that he had a true contender on paper. I had my reservations because up to this point, Keo hadn’t really proved that he was a great pro. He wasn’t terrible and always took great care of his partners. But teaching and choreographing for him hadn’t been very good. Others felt the same too and took it as far as to say that he didn’t deserve her. That was understandable at first until they came out and Keo started to really grow and deliver with Jodie. It was very apparent that he was doing a really good job. But everyone was holding him to a much higher standard than pros like Val, who was coasting that season with Ginger, or Sasha, who was playing things very safe with Kim Fields. There were even articles being written, that were asking if Keo was failing Jodie. I have never seen any other pro get negative press like that for “failing his celeb.” He wasn’t failing her. In fact, there is only one other pro that I think would have been able to do a better job than Keo that season. And that is Derek. Jodie may have been a good dancer, but she had a lot of issues with keeping her nerves under control. You could tell that Jodie was also very fragile and had just fixed a lot of the things that she had been going through, throughout her life. As Courtney said over on Pure, she was Mischa Barton, had Mischa done the show 5 years after she was fully recovered. You’ve had Maks handle his partners very rough and had many of the other men pretty much verbally abuse some of their partners. Some of these women have been reduced to tears. Bloggers rarely, if ever wrote about it. In fact, I only remember them reporting on the Maks and Hope problem during season 13. But Jodie doesn’t do as well as people expected her to, so now Keo is blamed and is not doing his job. That reeks of antiblackness. The man did right by Jodie as far as I’m concerned.

We’re still going to be looking at season 22, but for this paragraph, we’ll be looking at switch up night.  Now as most of you all know, I loathe switch up week. The energy surrounding it is always just bad. The pros and the celebs dread it, the judges are meaner than usual and the fans are absolutely terrible. Blogging during those weeks was the absolute worst. So I can only imagine the way that the pros and celebs felt. Anyway, Keo and Kim were put together. Their personalities meshed well, but there was a HUGE height difference between them. With only like 5 days to get to know your new partner, establish some sort of connection and get a routine together that fits them, there’s only so much that you can do. So Keo elected to spend most of the dance doing open work. That was a smart idea considering the circumstances and the fact that Keo is over a foot taller than Kim. However, the judges came down super hard on him and really made a huge deal out of it and acted like it was terrible. It was so bad and hard to watch them get verbally abused like that. The dance wasn’t bad at all and actually was pretty good. But from the way Maks went in on them, you’d think that they just sat down in the middle of the floor and played patty cake the whole time. I think his treatment was probably worse than the way the judges tend to rip Witney apart on switchup week. And they’re awful with her. What’s the difference between Keo and the other pros? Season 22 was a ton of antiblackness and racism aimed directly at Keo, and it was disgusting to watch play out. It didn’t help that after a 6th place finish, the show decided to bench him and brought back Gleb and Maks for season 23. And neither one of them even had a smidgen of the success with their partners that season that Keo had with Jodie. That right that just shows you that Black people have to do twice as much just to even get half of what white people get. He did and went through all of that in season 22, just to be benched for season 23.

Brandon, Britt and Keo

Now that I’ve spoken about Keo, I’ll also just say a little about Brandon and Britt. These two have been featured very little in comparison to the other members of the troupe. I think Britt has fared slightly better than Brandon in this regard. The show seems to have invested a little more into her. I think they might be gearing up to promote her within the next couple of seasons just based on the fact that they put her in one of the trio numbers this season. Hopefully they do right by her. I doubt they will though. And to be honest, I think the only reason we saw Brandon featured as much as we did, is because he and Rashad hit it off. In fact, I’m glad that Rashad was on this season. I don’t think Keo and Brandon would have been featured as much if it weren’t for the fact that he befriended them. And Emma being smart, decided to use them in a few of their dances like Brandon in the quickstep and freestyle and Brandon and Keo (and the other guy) in the tango.

And that completes the second installment of Let’s Talk About It- Race, Antiblackness and Colorism in DWTS. The next part will hopefully be up by this weekend. I think I’m going to cover a lot of the issues that Black men face on the show. I’ll talk about Black women in the 4th installment. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts about this one and I will talk to you all soon.